Making sense of Mediterranean

Despite all the well-known health benefits of what’s loosely described as a Mediterranean Diet, people remain confused about what exactly this means in their daily lives. Does it mean choosing strange foods? Does it mean eating only foods native to the Mediterranean region? No on both counts.

International Mediterranean Month is a great time to try to clear up the confusion. Let’s start with why we even care about this sort of diet plan. Short answer: it’s healthy! A Mediterranean style meal plan has been linked to reduced risk for all the common chronic diseases, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and hypertension. The link was first recognized by researchers in the 1960’s. There’s also evidence that it’s easier to manage weight on this type of diet. The Mediterranean Diet is consistently ranked the best overall diet by US News.

Food Basics

Mostly plant-sourced foods

Vegetables, legumes, grain-based foods, nuts, and fruit are the basis of this diet. But your choices are not limited to foods from the Mediterranean region. You could choose foods native to Central America, or to India or to Southeast Asia or Europe. The most important point is that most of what you choose to eat are foods sourced from plants.

Unfortunately the focus on the word “Mediterranean” is misleading, because plenty of people think you must choose foods and recipes that are Mediterranean. I wish there was another good term for this diet. Some people use “plant-based”, which is technically correct. However other people think plant-based means a strict vegan or vegetarian diet, which is incorrect, and creates more confusion.

Meat and dairy eaten infrequently and in small amounts

This is a very important aspect of this diet. Animal-sourced foods are only ever used in small amounts, and/or only consumed infrequently. Giant slabs of meat are not the focus of every dinner; 3-egg cheese omelets with a side of bacon are not the norm for breakfast. Your default daily lunch is not a burger and fries. Eating meat or dairy at all 3 meals every day does not fit with this diet.

Vietnamese pho is a great example of a plant-based foods that uses only small amounts of meat or fish

A low-meat diet is common throughout the world, not just in Mediterranean regions or impoverished countries. The cuisines of India, Southeast Asia, China and Central America are good examples. Meat, fish, dairy foods and eggs are used in small portions, to complement other foods at a meal. They aren’t the main focus. When you eat less of those animal-sourced foods you have to fill in your diet with something else. In other words, plant-sourced foods.

High protein plant foods become more important in meals. Whether spicy lentils in India or tofu and noodles in Japan or refried beans and rice in Mexico, plant proteins fill in nicely and add plenty of other nutrients. Added bonus: these foods are filling, so you’re less tempted to overeat.

red lentil chickpea soup garnished with yogurt

Low sugar and junk

The Mediterranean Diet is by definition low in added sugar foods and processed food. Desserts, sweets and constant snacking were never a traditional feature of Mediterranean cuisine. Unfortunately this good habit might be disappearing, as grab-and-go processed food snacking culture spreads around the world. Healthy snacks should be nuts, fruit and vegetables.

Healthy fats

Vegetable fats are an essential part of the Mediterranean diet. Of course, in the Mediterranean region, olive oil is the fat of choice. In other parts of the world, other oils are used, such as canola, soy and sesame. But compared to these, olive oil is unique. It’s particularly high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which have unique health properties. Extra virgin olive oil is loaded with polyphenols, which have their own health benefits and give olive oils their distinctive color and flavor. So in that respect, this one Mediterranean region food provides health benefits that other oils do not.

Unlike so-called healthy low fat diets promoted in Western countries, the Mediterranean style diet has a moderate (or higher) overall fat content. How can this be? Liberal use of olive oil makes meals more satisfying and flavorful, so you aren’t tempted to overeat or indulge in sweets. Low fat diets are notoriously hard to stick with; if you can’t stick to a diet, it’s a failure, no matter how good it looks on paper.

There are many variations around the Mediterranean region

Even in the Mediterranean region, there are many different diet styles. The diet in Spain is different from that of Italy or Southern France. Those are very different from the traditional Greek diet, which is different from the cuisines of North African and Middle Eastern countries. Even in this relatively small region, food choice is impacted by different agricultural practices, due to climate and geography. Goats are more important here, less so there, where cattle are more abundant. Certain legumes or seasonings are available in one place but not another. Same for nuts, grains and fruit. The main thing these countries have in common is olive oil. And even olive oil varies significantly in flavor and color by region.

What to call it?

I wish there was a better term than “Mediterranean Diet”. As you see, this healthful diet style can include all sorts of foods from around the world. The term “Mediterranean” can be misleading and put people off. And it dismisses all the wonderful and healthy plant-based cuisines from other parts of the world. It’s easy to get caught up in playing word games to create the perfect description. Flexitarian comes closest, but that term is not widely known. Perhaps Flexiterranean (sounds like some sort of dinosaur).

As I noted, plant-based is technically correct, but is misinterpreted as strict vegan. And using the word “plant” leads many people to conclude that the diet is just about eating vegetables. So I remain at a loss, but I’ll keep thinking about it.

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